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FDR Pushed for the Rescue of Jewish Refugees, Newly Revealed Documents Show

By Justin Ewers 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: July 07, 2009 
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SEPTEMBER 2009 — To his critics, Franklin Roosevelt's response to the Holocaust was epitomized by his June 1939 decision to refuse political asylum to more than 900 passengers aboard the German ocean liner St. Louis. The passengers, nearly all of them Jewish refugees, had the lights of Miami in sight when the United States government refused them permission to disembark. Roosevelt did not respond to pleas for help. The ship returned to Europe, and the Holocaust claimed more than a third of those who returned to the Continent.

Because of this, Roosevelt has been depicted as indifferent to the fate of the Jews. According to a new book, Refugees and Rescue, though, it is a reputation he does not deserve. As revealed in the previously unpublished diary of James McDonald, the man who oversaw Roosevelt's wartime advisory committee on refugees, FDR did try to help Jewish refugees before the war.

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A year before the St. Louis affair, FDR prodded the State Department to allow tens of thousands of Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria, and developed plans to turn the Western democracies into a huge safety net. "Roosevelt was a man of grand vision who wanted to resettle a much larger number of refugees," writes Richard Breitman, an American University historian who helped edit the volume. "[But] his willingness to take action varied sharply according to political and military circumstances."

As early as the spring of 1938, according to McDonald's papers, Roosevelt began talking about a plan to rescue millions of Jews from Nazi Germany and divide them between a group of 10 democratic countries. Later that year, Roosevelt promised McDonald that he would ask Congress to appropriate $150 million to help resettle refugees around the world. In May 1939, only a month before the St. Louis incident, McDonald was present when FDR warned his advisors that the situation of the Jews in Germany was growing critical. "It was not so much a question of money," McDonald recorded the president saying, "as it was of actual lives."

McDonald, the high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations in the 1930s, had no tolerance for foot-dragging bureaucrats or timid world leaders. He had resigned from his post in 1935 over the organization's unwillingness to help Jews in Nazi Germany. And he had no reason to make excuses for Roosevelt. Which, historians say, is what makes his decision to join the president's advisory committee on refugees in 1938—and his impressions of a president he believed was quite concerned about the fate of European Jews—so important.

So why didn't Roosevelt act? McDonald blamed the intractable politics of the time. In early 1939, with the St. Louis about to set sail, FDR refused to endorse a bill that would have brought 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States outside the immigration quota. From McDonald's perspective, FDR saw the bill as a mere gesture—not a solution. In the face of strong public opposition and an intransigent State Department, both Roosevelt and McDonald also recognized that the bill was doomed to fail. "The problem was that most of the initiatives to resettle refugees…proved impossible, met substantial resistance abroad, or developed very slowly," Breitman and his coeditors write. "The outbreak of war destroyed most of what opportunities remained."

By 1940, Roosevelt abandoned his major resettlement efforts when he was forced to change his focus from humanitarian action to national security. That transition disappointed McDonald so much that he voted for Wendell Willkie in that year's presidential election.

Nonetheless, after FDR won, McDonald stayed on as the president's adviser, doing what he could to help Europe's Jews. "We definitely have a sense that McDonald felt he and Roosevelt were, if not on the same page, at least in the same chapter," Breitman told World War II. "He eventually realized that no one had the power to stop the Holocaust." Sadly, that included the president.


14 Responses to “FDR Pushed for the Rescue of Jewish Refugees, Newly Revealed Documents Show”


  1. 1
    Terence says:

    A bit rough on Roosevelt. There was no holocaust in 1938 and the Nazis had yet to occupy the bulk of Europe. In 1938 Jews were being rendered stateless in Germany, not being bumped-off.
    "Roosevelt's plan" was the Evian conference that resulted in effectively—nothing. No country ( except the Dominican Republic) wanted to let any more Jews in.
    It was the US Congress who had fixed the immigration quotas for 'Jews' and Congress that turned down the Wagner-Rodgers Bill ( to allow 20,000 Jews into the US) due to US anti-semitism. Even the Zionist organisations did not push for refugee Jews to gain entry to America as their political agenda called for them to go to Palestine despite the British immigation quota of 15,000 per year.
    10,000 Jewish children under the age of 17 from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were transported to Britain though ( The Kindertransport) and fostered out to (mainly non-Jewish) British families from 1938 until the start of WW2.

  2. 2
    Jake says:

    All that the newly available papers make clear is that Roosevelt was amenable to resettlement of Jewish refugees – so long as the United States wasn't their destination. He was not alone in his desire for the Jewish refugees to be someone else's problem; it was a sentiment common among WASPs of the day, perhaps most memorably exemplified by Roosevelt's cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration. In reference to the proposed Wagner-Rogers bill, she warned that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." Again and again, Roosevelt's attitude regarding refugee resettlement was "anywhere but here".

    McDonald’s argument that "FDR saw the bill as a mere gesture—not a solution", is one of the most absurd attempts at apologism that I have ever encountered. Allowing inthousands of children would not be a mere "gesture" — whatever the wider issues, that would be 20,000 human lives secured, period.

    The bill would likely have faced much opposition in Congress, but it might have had a shot had the President of the United States put his weight behind it. Roosevelt, however, stayed silent, and in an internal memo, ordered his staff to take no action on the matter, sealing its doom.

    • 2.1
      Larry C. says:

      I agree completely with Jake.

      My family is not Jewish but numerous individuals worked to help them including those in Europe who wereAfried (literally) for helping. An American member of the family had personally approached Roosevelt about the St.Louis issue and learned that Roosevelt had no intention to help.

      It was no different when later he gave away all Eastern Europe to "Uncle Joe" (Stalin). He could have stood up to Stalin and not allowed the Russian to keep Eastern Europe. In fact he had Allied armies back out of areas they had taken so Stalin can have them.

      His wasp (perhaps Pro-communist) attitude had no bounds.

  3. 3
    Deborah Rosen says:

    I keep hearing that it was the Republicans who refused to allow the refugee ship to land from family members. Sounds like it was the Roosevelt administration, and considering the dictatorial powers assumed by Roosevelt, I can't for a moment imagine there was anything he "couldn't" do. I agree with Jake, blatant FDR apologetics. Interesting to learn that it is nothing new for the republicans to get the blame even when the Democrats are guilty. Not that the Republicans are above reproach, but they should only get blamed for their own actions.

    • 3.1
      BillH says:

      "considering the dictatorial powers assumed by Roosevelt, I can't for a moment imagine there was anything he "couldn't" do."

      Any of thousands of history books that cover the subject of FDR's frustration with obstructionist Republicans can help rectify your "imagine' (learning) deficit.

  4. 4
    H. Harrow says:

    Extensive diaries of James McDonald have been discovered. I hope these diaries are published. He was truly a hero of the Jewish people during WWII.

  5. 5
    leslie wilson says:

    my famely history goes to germany to the moose famely. sarrah paylon remarks about blood liabel was not a mistake at all. I to grew up hearing that. I also was at duc pho. I have a anger at politions useing mamoral day for a stunt.one day a year we are shadows an the brothers are alive.THE WORDS ON THE DOGTAGS give the prichers freedom to send us all to hell. what i writa is me and nobody but me. we all have our freedoms and libertys?

  6. 6
    ross says:

    Hey Les,
    If you don't spell properly, it doesn't matter what you say – people won't take you seriously. That's the truth, whether fair or not. The common (mis?)conception is if you can't spell, you don't have a good education, therefore you don't know what you are talking about.

  7. 7
    SmokeTNT says:

    "FDR refused to endorse a bill that would have brought 20,000 German Jewish children into the United States outside the immigration quota."

    You could actually just stop right there. FDR was no humanitarian by any means, thousands of people being thrown into internment camps because of their race could attest to that. No amount of revisionist history can ever trump actual history.

  8. 8
    Mike Madden says:

    Sorry, I don't buy the attempted premise of the article. Roosevelt could have forced authorities to allow the St Louis to land. The fact that he supported a move to allow 20,000 Jewish children to enter the US above and beyond the standing quotas is just a red herring. It has nothing to do with his not pushing to allow the St Louis to land in the US. The US was aware of what was being done to the Jews of Germany at the time. In many ways I admire Roosevelt, but I can't stand slavish historical revisionists who worship him and who will go to great lengths to always make him look good.
    One must always remember how Jews were viewed around the world, including the in the US.at the time in question. It wasn't favorable but it was how the world thought in times past….and in some cases still now. Too bad our people are being taught history from today's viewpoint and not from the viewpoints of the time. No wonder our population is so dumbed down.

  9. 9
    Alfred Moch says:

    During this time period, there were a number of secret missions that were conducted during World War II. There was a story that a group of seperated and/or displaced Orphan Jewish Children were spirited out of Europe. At the time and at risk, French Minister and French Patriot, Jules S. Moch, was involved with a safe house, were these and other individuals were gathered. It was reported that Eleanor Roosevelt, secretly appeared at this operation, making sure that things were going well.
    After World War II, both Moch and Roosevelt supported the adoption of The U.N. Human Rights Charter, and the establishment of The State of Israel.

  10. 10
    JJ says:

    FDR deserves the scorn

    He was a coward for doing this , and those poor souls who died , their blood is on his hands

  11. 11
    Amber says:

    The Reader's Digest, this summer just carried a long article about one of the convoys of Jewish Children brought to the USA. 50,000 in that convoy. Some of them are still alive and they gave their accounts of the journey.

    The St.Louis. FDR put pressure on Cuba and Jews with relatives there were released. Ditto in the USA. Cordell Hull, Dem. Sec. of State, refused to admit them with out paperwork. Jews with USA relatives in the states were released as proven in the National Archives and USA Census Reports. Same as in Canada.

    FDR and Canadian officials asked England. France. Netherlands. Belgium to accept all of the Jews left on the ship as refugees and keep them safe for two months until they could enter the USA. All agreed. About half of the Jews in Europe did come to the USA after the two months, and prospered mightily there. The Jews who remained in Europe by choice, those who died in the camps were captured when Hitler's lightening Panzer attacks ran over Europe. To blame FDR and to malign a true hero is shocking to me.

    The St. Louis returned to Germany without ONE JEW on it. Not one.

    Later the USA Army, which did not have to get involved in the War, but did so mostly through the machinations of FDR saw over a millions American men die as they drove to free the death camps.

    \Without the American Military, Jews would be bars of soap.\: Micheal Savage. Jewish. Doctor. Writer. Scientist. Radio Talk Show host. Genius. American Patriot.

    And more Jews live in the USA than in Israel. they are a small portion of the USA population but they control three seats on the USA Supreme Court, The USA has 47 Jewish Representatives and Senators in Congress. All branches of the USA MSM are owned by Jewish groups. Jewish Groups own Disneyworld..the entire Disney Corporation and much else. Hollywood for example. It is shocking to me to read this Anti America venom. Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Israel thanked the People of the USA for the billions to build the Iron Dome there…which is protecting them today.



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